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“Tea or coffee?” asks our affable host Charles as I shuffle into the living room, rubbing my eyes. My day has hardly started and I’ve already been presented with a reminder of India’s penchant for creative borrowing. Indian tea would hardly be recognizable to a Chinese connoisseur; Indian coffee would baffle a café-frequenting European. The drinks have been given an Indian twist, as have many foreign traditions (gustatory and otherwise) that have found their way into the already-crowded world of Indian customs. In India, coffee and tea are commonly prepared in the same way: with whole milk, heaping spoonfuls of sugar, a hearty helping of masala (spices) and a pinch of the caffeinated plant in question. While tea is popular throughout India, coffee has its strongholds in the south; since I was in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, I opted for coffee.

 

Even though we hadn’t met our hosts before we arrived at their house,, they were bound by the threads of obligation and reciprocity that hold together Indian society. When my father came to India in 1971 to lead groups for Indian clergymen, he worked with a priest who soon after became a bishop. Decades later, the bishop’s secretary asked my father to make a donation on behalf of a destitute village; my father obliged. Many years passed, but when the secretary heard my parents were coming to India, he insisted to repay my father’s generosity by hosting us at his sister’s house. By the time we arrived, the secretary was in Belgium. This was no matter to us for the secretary arranged for us to stay with his sister Christina and brother-in-law Charles with whom we had never made personal contact.  

 

We guests, my parents and I, plus a friend, speak no Hindi, let alone Tamil and for the visit, we communicate largely in gestures. Charles speaks some English, the result of his work in China and Romania as an embassy police officer, so we’re never totally at a loss. While abroad, he also learned to cook, a rare skill for a traditional Indian male, especially a federal officer, but one that made him many friends in the embassy, despite some gentle ribbing.

 

Perhaps because of the language gap between us and our hosts, they show their warm hospitality largely through their actions: bringing us bottle after bottle of mineral water, giving up their bedrooms for us -we try to object, but to no avail- and serving us massive amounts of food. Since we are honored guests, we get the finest food: fish, chicken, even beef, a rarity in the Hindu-dominated north but a bit more common here in the south where Christians make up a larger part of the population.

 

Breakfasts are a little lighter, though the portions are still substantial. After sipping our morning drinks, we take our places at the table, and our hosts bring out the mountains of food. The menu: puri (little fried circles of wheat, similar to fried dough), coconut chutney, tomato chutney, and a spicy potato dish. Our hosts stand attentively behind us as we eat, filling any empty part of our plates. Only after we finish do they eat.

 

* * *

 

Today a priest, Father Solomon, has generously offered to take us around in his air-conditioned Toyota Corolla, quite a luxurious ride in this part of the world. Our destination: nKanyakumari Sunsetearby Kanyakumari, the town at the very southern tip of India where the three seas meet: The Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. The six of us pile into the Corolla, Charles and Fr. Solomon in front, we four guests crammed in back. Our hosts object, say we’ll be uncomfortable, but we insist it’s okay. By Indian standards, this is nothing. I’ve seen tiny autorickshaws with 10 kids crammed in, limbs and heads sticking out the sides at odd angles. Four often fit onto a single motorcycle, whether it's a father, mother and two little kids or – more precariously – two men and two goats.

 

Because nothing in India happens in a straight line, we don’t go directly to Kanyakumari. After a brief stop at the post office, we head to a local church that Father Solomon helped renovate. Even here we were given food: Fanta and bananas, another reminder of India’s blending of outside and indigenous cultures. We hit the road again.

Is it lunchtime already? We eat at a posh hotel, a symbol of the new India, complete with a gym and rooftop swimming pool. From the fifth-story window of the hotel restaurant, we can see the tops of palm trees swaying amidst cell phone towers with the jagged cliffs of the Western Ghats rising in the haze beyond. We have Chinese food for lunch, or rather India’s peculiar take on Chinese food, which is heavy on chili and often submerged in a Indian influenced heavy sauce.

 

Our next stop: the site of the martyrdom of Devasahayam who is now in the long queue of holy men and women awaiting beatification. “See,” says Father Solomon triumphantly, “It’s not just India that has long lines.” As we approach the site, the road gets narrower and bumpier and village life encircles us. Just before the site, we emerge into an open field. The air is thick with dust from huge bales of hay that are being sorted and tied together. The car slows to a crawl, and we see a graceful old sari-clad woman with perfect posture balancing a huge bale of hay on her head. She pays us no attention.

 

At the site, I gaze at the statues and crosses and read about the man who was executed two centuries ago because he converted to Christianity and started proselytizing. Originally a high-caste Hindu, Devasahayam flouted the conventions of caste by associating with the “impure” elements of society, just as Jesus had eaten with prostitutes and tax collectors. He quickly incurred the wrath of a ruling class worried that the Christian message of radical equality would lead to unrest in an already unstable kingdom. It’s an ugly moment in Indian history that has unfortunate resonances today. Recently, dozens of Christians were murdered in a riot, the killers stirred to a frenzy by members of a right-wing fundamentalist Hindu movement called Hindutva. Proclaiming that India is a Hindu state, Hindutva activists are incensed by the supposedly underhanded methods of Christian missionaries. India is home to many cultures and religions, and – as a rule – they live together comfortably, borrowing traditions from one another with admirable ease, but the exceptions to the rule are chilling.

 

* * *

 

After many detours and much food, we arrive at our destination! We happily spill out of the crowded car and… into a long line. Father Solomon has delivered us to the departure point for a ferry that shuttles tourists to the Vivekananda memorial, which sits on a rocky island a few hundred meters offshore. Swami Vivekananda’s Hinduism stands in stark contrast to the intolerant, violent faith of the Hindutva movement. He is known for his credo Sarva Dharma Sambhava: all religions are worthy of equal respect. In 1892, he swam to the rock on which his memorial now stands, meditated, then embarked on a worldwide tour, trying to bring his open, universalist Hinduism to the West. He was the first guru to gain a widespread following in the West, starting a tradition that reached its heyday with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Beatles and that continues to this day – in a more commercial vein – with Deepak Chopra and his ilk. Arguably, the quality and religious sincerity of the exported gurus has declined with time; Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen sees Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as a self-promoting opportunist. He notes with glee John Lennon’s caustic remark to the Maharishi when he had asked why the Beatles were leaving him: “You are the cosmic one; you ought to know.”

 

DVivekananda Memorialespite the length and density of the line for the ferry, it moves fairly quickly. Once on the island, we take off our shoes – a must for religious sites in India – and join the throng of tourists already on the island. The main temple on the island, which houses a statue of Vivekananda, is built to reflect architectural styles from all over India. Beneath its main hall is a meditation room. Although silence is supposed to be maintained in all parts of the temple, the meditation room is the only place where this dictum is actually obeyed and there is something about the room that demands silence. An aura of calm and respect pervades. Towards the back is a bench, in front of which is a large mat. The old or the inflexible sit on the bench while others sit on the mat. In the very front of the room is a large, softly lit “om” sign and small speakers broadcast a continual chanting of “om” in an ethereal voice. The room is dark, and the sign glows an otherworldly green. While I find the sign slightly bizarre, I’m amazed how at peace I feel while sitting amongst the meditators.

 

After an indeterminate amount of time, I return to the world of camera phones and hawkers. Joining the others, I gaze with them at the three seas and then at the little spit of land that constitutes the very southern tip of India. Bathers immerse themselves in the auspicious waters and, tempted by the joining of land and the seas, we decide to join them.

 

* * *

“People come here to commit suicide,” Father Solomon informs us.

 

The “here” in question, though, is not easy to reach. I clearly haven’t learned my lesson yet about India and straight lines. After taking the ferry back to the mainland, we pile back into the car and drive… and drive…. The direct route to the southern tip is not accessible by car, so we take a winding detour, and end up parking at a place called the “Spirituality Center.” We are greeted by a man in saffron robes, a flowing white beard, and warm, deep, mystical eyes. His spiritual nature does not stop him from attending to our material needs: he brings out a variety of roasted nuts for us to munch on as we talk.

 

The Center was established for spiritual seekers from all traditions. In the small meditation/prayer room, there are Hindu, Christian and Muslim symbols, along with the universal message: “God is Love. Love Creates. Love Suffers. Love Unites.” Our host – Swami P. Vincent – tells us we must go beyond all divisions. Beyond caste, beyond race, beyond rationality, even beyond religion. “Religion,” he says, “when it creates divisions, keeps us from reaching true spirituality, which is simply a relationship: between man and God, between man and man, between man and his ecological setting.”

 

Reflecting a view often expressed in Indian philosophy, he describes how humans are made up of five elements, just like the rest of nature. We are just part of this larger whole and until we understand and have compassion for all of nature, we will not really understand ourselves. The swami quotes extensively from Sanskrit texts to illustrate his point, with helpful translations of course.

 

Here Father Solomon chimes in that the swami talks to snakes and birds, just like St. Francis. Looking around the center, it’s clear that the swami’s chosen the right place to commune with nature. Thick grass grows on the lawn, and groves of tropical trees provide shade for humans and homes for birds. Looking down the hill from the center, we see the three seas. The sun is starting to set, and a faint line of orange glimmers on the water.

 

As we leave the Center and walk towards the water, we ask Father Solomon to tell us more about our host. We find – to our surprise – that he is a diocesan Catholic priest. His following, though, is not limited to Catholics, or even to Christians. When people come here to commit suicide, they sometimes hear about the wise man on the hilltop who can offer another path. Some meet with him and many of them – after receiving his advice – turn back toward the land.

 

* * *

 

We walk towards the southernmost tip in the fading light of day. Museums and memorials line the road. We briefly tour a memorial honoring Kamaraj, the first chief minister of Madras State, the precursor of Tamil Nadu. Kamaraj educated himself while in prison for his involvement in the Indian independence movement and made education the cornerstone of his reforms when he became chief minister. He introduced free and compulsory education, implemented a free-lunch program for schoolchildren, and distributed free school uniforms so children wouldn’t dwell on caste, creed or class distinctions. A minor figure in the story of Indian independence, Kamaraj is typical of the remarkable class of leaders that emerged out the freedom struggle, rebels-turned-statesmen who dedicated themselves to eliminating the divisions and deprivations that plagued Indian society.

We then head to the memorial of a freedom fighter who is, to put it mildly, a bit more famous: Mahatma Gandhi. Like the Vivekananda temple and the Spirituality Center, this memorial is built to reflect the diversity of India, incorporating Hindu, Islamic and Christian architectural elements. We get a brief tour from a stern guide, who barks his memorized English speech with gravity and severity. He warms briefly as my mom thanks him for an informative talk.

 

Our final diversion before reaching the sea: a crowded marketplace full of blinding fluorescent lights, fragrant spices, and 5 and 20 rupee stalls, the Indian equivalent of dollar stores, except that prices range from 12 to 50 cents, respectively). On the other side of the market is darkness, calm and the sound of crashing waves. We take off our shoes and dip our feet into three oceans.

 

IThiruvalluvar Statuen the darkness, we can just make out the Vivekananda memorial. Next to it is a 133-foot statue of Thiruvalluvar, a second century Tamil poet famous for writing a 133-chapter poem. As we put on our footwear, Father Solomon recalls the day that the horrific 2004 tsunami hit Tamil Nadu. The water, he says, was as tall as that statue. He was inland when it happened, but he immediately traveled to one of the most devastated towns. The police stayed away, scared that they’d get dragged out to sea if another wave came, so Father Solomon and other religious leaders took matters into their own hands. They went out into the shallow waters dragging bodies onto the land and helping families identify lost loved ones.

 

As we climb into the car and begin the journey home, Father Solomon’s somber words still echo. In my mind, as I picture priests, swamis and imams joining hands in the face of immense tragedy, I am transported back to the Spirituality Center.

 

Love suffers, love unites.

 

 

Kanyakumari Dusk

© Thomas Crowley

 

 

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